'Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew…’
So speaks the aging Ulysses to his companions in Tennyson’s great poem. Unwilling ‘to rust unburnished’ and die by his own hearth, he sets out actively to seek the lands beyond the sunset, the home of the heroic dead.
But the voyages Odysseus makes in the Odyssey have already taken him alive into the Otherworld – to many a magical island ruled by nymphs and goddesses, and at last to the very shores of death. At the beginning of the Odyssey, the gods are discussing the latest news from Mycenae, where Orestes has just struck down Aegisthus, his father’s killer. Zeus complains that men blame the gods for their misfortunes, when in reality they bring troubles upon themselves. But Athene takes the opportunity to put in a plea for her own protégé Odysseus:
Aigisthus indeed has been struck down in a death well-merited.
…But the heart in me is torn for the sake of Odysseus,
unhappy man, who still, far from his friends, is suffering
griefs, on the sea-washed island, the navel of all the waters,
a wooded island, and there a goddess has made her dwelling-place.
This goddess is the nymph Calypso, who
…detains the grieving, unhappy
man, and ever with soft and flattering words she works to
charm him to forget Ithaka; and yet Odysseus
straining to get sight of the very smoke uprising
from his own country, longs to die.
Zeus agrees that it is indeed time to work on bringing the hero home.
The story of Odysseus is the grand-daddy of legendary voyage stories. Setting off from Troy with twelve ships, he and his men are driven by storms to the land of the Lotus Eaters (whose fruit causes memory-loss) and then the island of the Cyclops Polyphemus, who captures them for food ‘like killing puppies’ and from whom they escape after blinding him. Still grieving for their dead comrades, they make their next landfall at
…the Aiolian island where Aiolus
lived, Hippotas’ son, beloved by the immortal
gods, on a floating island, the whole enclosed by a rampart
Aiolus is in charge of the winds and gives Odysseus a leather bag holding all except the west wind – a gift which properly used should have carried the hero home. But while Odysseus sleeps his men open the bag, and all the winds burst out and drive them back on their course. Aiolus refuses to help them again, and, entering the harbour of the cannibal Laistrygonians, all Odysseus’ ships are destroyed except his own:
My ship and only mine, fled out from the overhanging
cliffs to the open water, but the others were all destroyed there.
We came to Aiaia, which is an island. There lived Circe
of the lovely hair, the dread goddess who talks with mortals.
Circe changes Odysseus’ remaining companions into swine, but, aided by Hermes who gives him the magical herb moly, Odysseus rescues them and becomes Circe’s lover. Finally, Circe advises them to sail to Hades, land of the dead, to consult the spirit of the seer Tiresias. Deeply shaken by this advice, Odysseus demands,
‘who will be our guide on that journey? No one
has ever yet in a black ship gone all the way to Hades.’
But the goddess tells him to raise sail and:
…let the blast of the North Wind carry you.
But when you have crossed with your ship the stream of Ocean, you will
find there a thickly wooded shore, and the groves of Persephone,
and tall black poplars growing, and fruit-perishing willows,
then beach your ship on the shore of the deep-eddying Ocean. And yourself
go forward into the mouldering home of Hades.
go forward into the mouldering home of Hades.
Odysseus meets many spirits of the dead here, including his own mother, whom he vainly attempts to embrace:
I started towards her, and my heart was urgent to hold her,
and three times she fluttered out of my hands like a shadow
or a dream, and the sorrow sharpened at the heart within me.
And Achilles, whom he tries to console with news of his earthly fame, only to receive the bitter reply:
I would rather follow the plough as thrall to another
man, one with no land allotted to him and not much to live on
than be king over all the perished dead.
This, from the Achilles of the Iliad who chose glory instead of length of days, shows how very different the mood of the Odyssey is from that of the Iliad…
Returning to Circe’s island, Odysseus and his men are given further advice about their homeward voyage. They skirt the island of the sweetly-singing Sirens who tempt sailors on to the rocks, and pass the monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis. Then the ship is wrecked (as punishment for hunting the cattle of the sun god Helios), and Odysseus is the only survivor. He is washed ashore on the island of the nymph Calypso, who keeps him as her lover for seven years until Zeus orders her to release him…
For me, one of the most fascinating things about the Odyssey is the prevalence of powerful women, beside whom Odysseus is simply a homeless wanderer. There are the nymphs Calypso and Circe, the female monsters Scylla and Charybdis, the goddesses Persephone and Athene, the Sirens, the princess Nausikaa who rescues Odysseus after his second shipwreck, and her mother Queen Arete whom Nausikaa advises Odysseus to approach first rather than her father King Alkinous. There is wise Penelope, Odysseus' wife: clearly queen in her own right since marriage to her will give one of the suitors kingship. There's even Odysseus' old nurse, who is the first person to recognise him on his return to Ithaka. And there's Odysseus’ longing to embrace his beloved mother in Hades. It’s so different from the warlike world of the Iliad in which women – Chryseis, Briseis, Andromache, Helen, Cassandra – are powerless victims. No wonder Robert Graves suggested in his novel ‘Homer’s Daughter’ that the Odyssey was written by a woman!
But most of all, the Odyssey sets the pattern for the Mystical Voyage, which takes the protagonist from one magical island to another, encountering mystery, danger and wonder. The island sealed with brazen walls, the island surrounded by whirlpools, the island of the winds, the dark shore of Death with its black poplars and whispering willows, all these will recur and echo down the centuries.
All quotations from the Odyssey in this post are from the translation by Richmond Lattimore, Harper Torchbooks, 1965